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Full/part-time paid/voluntary set-apart gospel ministry? Trying to find the best language for raising up the next generation of…

A lot of people recognise that Jesus’ words about the workers being few (Mark 9:37) are as true today as it was in the first century. I was recently standing in the garden of a friend, who’s the vicar of a rural parish, and he pointed north, south, east and west to neighbouring parishes where there were congregations without any meaningful pastoral oversight. And that’s just maintenance. If we’re talking about really getting into the unreached parts of the field and harvesting those outside the church then it’s going to need a lot more workers. If churches are going to be planted in significant numbers and at a significant pace across the UK then we’ll need hundreds more church planters in the next couple of decades.

But as soon as we start talking about raising up workers for the harvest field we run into difficulties finding the most helpful language to use.   
  •  ‘Christian ministry’ or simply ‘the ministry’ has a long history of use as shorthand for ordained ministry but is unhelpful in that it ignores the biblical data – that there are ‘varieties of service’ (1 Cor. 12:5; 1 Pet. 4:10) and διακονία can be used in an unqualified way just as much for practical Christian relief (Acts 6:1; 11:29; 2 Cor. 8:4) as it can for Word ministry.  All Christians should be doing (Christian) ministry (Eph. 4:12).
  • 'Pastoral ministry’ is quite clearly defined – usually referring to a particular church office – but we need to be raising up more than just pastors and vicars. We need evangelists, those working with particular groups (children, youth, students, seniors, women, men, families) or particular contexts (schools, prisons, hospitals), cross-cultural missionaries, biblical counsellors, music ministers.
  • ‘Gospel ministry’ is wider than ‘pastoral’ and more carefully defined than ‘Christian’ but we would first need to clarify whether ‘serving the gospel’ carries the sense of a) the gospel as the master we are serving (Luke 1:2?); or b) the gospel as the ‘meal’ we are serving to people (2 Cor. 3-4; Acts 20:24); or c) the gospel as the cause we are seeking to advance (Phil. 1:17). There is also an ambiguity – are we talking about gospel ministry for all (we are all to be evangelists, disciple makers, speaking the truth in love) or gospel ministry for some (the more restricted group of ordained pastors and evangelists). Interesting, the language of ‘minister of the gospel’ is only applied in the NT to Paul the apostle (Eph. 3:7; Col. 1:23).
  • ‘Full-time gospel ministry’ or ‘Paid gospel ministry’ or ‘Full-time paid gospel ministry’ is one way that we try to indicate ‘gospel ministry for some’ and it is a broadly helpful and accurate descriptor which fits many church and para-church roles. However, as well as being a bit of a mouthful, it could be argued that it puts undue emphasis on time and money as the decisive elements. Is the only/key difference between a pastor and a congregation member that one is being paid for their gospel ministry and/or has more time to dedicate to Word and prayer ministry? Certainly all church members should be godly and have a good understanding of the gospel and be able to share it with others but surely church leaders are called to a higher mark in terms of exemplary godliness, wise leadership and skilful handling of God’s Word?
  • ‘Set apart’ ministry is another attempt to define those that that are freed up to be dedicated to Word and prayer ministry (Acts 6:4) which equips the rest of the church (Eph. 4:11-12). This is quite helpful shorthand, a bit wider than ‘pastoral ministry’ but more carefully defined than ‘gospel ministry’. However, it still implies a focus on full-time paid ministry and appears to exclude more supportive diaconal ministries (which might actually involve quite a bit of Word ministry). ‘Set apart’ is also quite opaque jargon and sounds, if anything, a bit elitist. Looking to the NT we find the language of 'set apart' used rarely and quite specifically - in Acts 13:2 of the Holy Spirit setting apart the prophet Barnabas and the apostle Paul for missionary church planting and then by Paul of himself in Rom. 1:1 and Gal. 1:15 with apostolic-prophetic undertones (Jer. 1:5).
  •  'Word ministry’ (or ‘Prayer and Word ministry’ to follow Acts 6:4 more carefully) is more clear – ‘does what it says on the tin.’ However, as with ‘gospel ministry’ there is the ambiguity of whether this is being used in the ‘set apart full time’ sense or as a description of any ministry in the church involving the Bible – e.g. the speaking the truth to one another we should all be doing (Eph. 4:15; Col. 3:16).

Gospel worker?

Another suggestion is to use the language of ‘being a gospel worker.’ Jesus uses ἐργάτης (worker) on only a few occasions –
  • the prayer for workers for the harvest field (Matt. 9:38; Luke 10:2),
  • soon after that in the rule that the worker deserves his food/wages in the context of the mission of the 12 and 72 (Matt. 10:10; Luke 10:7)
  • in the parable of workers in the vineyard (Matt. 20). 
Interestingly when Paul quotes Luke 10:7 he applies it to elders (1 Tim. 5:18). Then, again when writing to Timothy, Paul uses ἐργάτης of the one rightly handling the Word (2 Tim 2:15).  

Then there is the related term – συνεργός – which is almost exclusively a Pauline term for referring to his co-workers. There are about 20 people that Paul explicitly calls συνεργός in his letters. They include men and women, different ethnicities and different ministries – some church-based, some mobile; some are mentoring people, some have preaching ministries, some have writing ministries, some have trouble-shooting ministries, some are providing practical backup to other gospel workers, some are church planting, some are hosting churches in their homes; some are full-time paid for their ministry, others are (literally) tent-makers. Many of them are working cross-culturally. What they have in common is that they are recognised by the churches as gospel workers – this is why Paul is commending them at the end of his letters. These are people who have a proven competence, soundness and godliness which means that Paul can commend then and say, “These are good people, I’ve relied on them, you should respect them, receive and support their ministry.”

The advantage of this category of ‘gospel worker’ is that it is allows us to speak in a biblically accurate way about a range of different ministries but making a distinction between congregational every member ministry and those who are somewhat set apart and recognised for their gospel ministry.

So that’s my suggestion – gospel workers.

Let’s pray to the Lord of the harvest to encourage every Christian in our churches in their incredibly valuable ministry in the church and home and workplace. And let’s also pray for the Lord of the harvest to raise up and send out recognised gospel workers – skilled, godly, zealous, full of the Spirit and wisdom, who can lead churches, plant churches, cross cultural barriers, preach the Word, care for souls, point people to Jesus.
And please also pray for the 9:38 Maximise conference in January that it would be part of the answer to those prayers...


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